By Greg Schleppenbach

May25, 2016

What if you spent years training to help the sick as a nurse – only to find that to keep your job, you must take part in the killing of a defenseless five-month-old unborn child?

What if a church in your town lived up to its teaching on healing the sick by providing its employees with excellent health coverage – but was told that is illegal, unless it pays for abortions that violate its teaching on life itself?

What if your local Catholic charitable agency were providing excellent service for some of the most marginalized people in our society – victims of human trafficking – but lost its federal grant to secular agencies that are less qualified, because it couldn't comply with a new government mandate to do abortion referrals?

Projections of a nightmare future, where respect for human life and religious freedom are a thing of the past? No, each of these things happened recently in our country – and will keep happening, unless we stand up as citizens and demand a change in the law.

The nurse is Cathy DeCarlo, who was forced to assist in an elective late-term abortion at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York on threat of being fired. The experience gave her nightmares and emotional trauma, so she filed suit to keep it from happening to others. But the court dismissed her case: The federal law protecting her rights could only be enforced by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). That agency sat on the case for three years, then declared it resolved after the hospital changed its policy. Cathy never had her day in court, and she and other health care providers remain vulnerable. You can see her story here.

It is the California department of managed health care that has ordered almost all health coverage statewide – even coverage provided by churches and other religious organizations – to include unlimited abortion coverage. California's mandate violates a federal law known as the Weldon amendment, but the federal agency assigned to enforce it has taken no action since complaints were filed over a year ago.   New York has instituted a similar mandate, and other states may follow California's lead as well.

And the federal grant to serve human trafficking victims was taken away from the U.S. bishops' Migration and Refugee Services agency and its nationwide network of Catholic subgrantees in 2011. Despite a congressional investigation, and calls for the government to obey its own conscience laws, government pressure on pro-life social service providers continues.

How can these things happen, if there are laws on the books to protect conscientious objection to abortion? The fact is, current laws have loopholes and legal weaknesses that opponents of conscience rights have learned to exploit. The biggest loophole is that none of these laws includes a "private right of action," allowing victims of discrimination to go to court to defend their rights. When the only enforcer against a government body's coercive actions is that same government body, the law can become a paper tiger.

A solution is available and we should be part of it. Congress has long been considering legislation to close these loopholes and provide a private right of action. Re-introduced this spring as the Conscience Protection Act (HR 4828, S. 2927), this legislation stands ready for committee action and a vote in the full House of Representatives.  Twenty-six pro-life organizations, including groups representing doctors, nurses and health facilities anxious to keep their right to respect all human life, have urged Congress to act.  We must speak up now to protect our cherished right of conscience.

In a partisan and divisive political climate, this is one issue that should bring Congress together. Conscience laws on abortion have been approved by Congresses and Presidents of both major parties for decades. President Obama has said he supports current federal conscience laws – and he should not object to letting them work effectively. Many "pro-choice" people realize that freedom of choice is meaningless unless it protects a choice not to be involved in taking unborn human life.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, with the help of its partner organization the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment (NCHLA), is working to see the Conscience Protection Act over the finish line this year. We can urge Congress to support this modest but essential law. NCHLA has made it easy to do so. Simply click here to send a message to your elected representatives. Together we can make a difference!

Mr. Schleppenbach is Associate Director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. For more on the bishops' work to protect conscience rights, see